Opinion

A reading program is struggling in NC. Welcome to the club, Republicans

Teacher Jeff Maynard, center, works on a reading lesson with one of his third-grade students at Brier Creek Elementary School in Raleigh in 2014. The students worked in “reading camps” to prepare for end-of-grade tests to comply with with the Read to Achieve law.
Teacher Jeff Maynard, center, works on a reading lesson with one of his third-grade students at Brier Creek Elementary School in Raleigh in 2014. The students worked in “reading camps” to prepare for end-of-grade tests to comply with with the Read to Achieve law. cseward@newsobserver.com

If you were at all gleeful this week that Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger’s Read to Achieve program is underperforming, you might want to reexamine your political and policy priorities. The program, launched in 2012 to try to raise third-grade reading levels, faced more bad news Wednesday with a report that North Carolina’s reading scores have essentially remained flat since 2011. That’s not something to celebrate — not even a little.

Berger, to this point, has done a lot right with Read to Achieve. He took a meaningful reading metric and launched a plan to improve it that had shown some success elsewhere. He put money and infrastructure behind that plan and gave it time to yield results. But according to the annual “report card” from the National Assessment of Education Progress, those results have dropped a statistically insignificant amount, not risen. All of which, we’re sure, is frustrating to the Senate Leader.

Welcome to the club, Mr. Berger.

It’s a club of people who care deeply about education. It’s a club that possesses both data and theories regarding what might help struggling schools and students, but it’s one that understands there are no certainties — and certainly no silver bullets. It is, above all, a club that knows the reasons students struggle are complex, that we need to try a lot of fixes and fail at some, and that all of it takes money and patience.

None of which is news to Sen. Berger, who is among the shrewdest policy makers in the state legislature. But for years, Berger’s party has largely argued that investing in education initiatives is throwing good money after bad, or that the answer is not money but school “choice” — as if private schools don’t face similar challenges as public. In fact, some education advocates believe that one of the reasons Read to Achieve has failed here is that the supporting education structure around it — including teachers and, importantly, pre-K — have been insufficiently funded by the Republicans Berger leads.

Certainly, many of those education advocates know what it’s like to get disappointing results. NAEP numbers this week also showed that nationally, fourth and eighth grade reading scores essentially have remained flat for a decade. This despite years of reforms across the country that include more precise standardized testing, stricter teacher evaluations and increased attentiveness to third-grade reading scores laws.

The results have frustrated educators across the country, just as North Carolina’s numbers surely have done for Sen. Berger. His response, however, has been at least a little heartening. Instead of using disappointing numbers as an excuse to abandon an education initiative, he worked to improve Read to Achieve, even recruiting Democrat and state school board member J.B. Buxton to help. That reform bill, however, was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, who called Read to Achieve ineffective and costly.

We suspect the governor may have been holding Berger’s signature project hostage in a budget fight, just as Berger and Republicans tried to hold higher teacher pay hostage this week over that same budget. If so, that’s wrong on both counts. Investment in education shouldn’t be subject to political weaponization, regardless of who does it.

We’re encouraged, however, that state school board members are seeing a new willingness from Republican leaders to work on solutions involving struggling schools and North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District, sources tell the editorial board. We believe education progress won’t be found in ideological sniping, but with a realization from both parties that improving schools is often difficult, regularly frustrating and never something we should abandon.

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